Something Congress Could Agree On: Helium

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An inert gas is the only thing this inert Congress can agree upon.

DCI

The United States Congress is so mired in gridlock and partisan politics that it couldn’t agree upon a basic funding bill, resulting in the suspension of government services and programs and the furloughing of hundreds of thousands of workers -- a partial shutdown of government itself.

The hot air in Washington is ironic, since hot air is the one thing Congress did manage to agree upon.

"We can't get anything passed of significance except selling helium," Jim Thurber, a political scientist at American University, told NPR. "It's actually laughable in terms of how dysfunctional they are."

On Sept. 25, the House unanimously passed H.R. 527, the Helium Stewardship Act of 2013 -- one of its last acts before the gears of government ground to a halt. The bill had passed the Senate nearly unanimously a week earlier. Should President Obama sign the bill, which has sat on his desk since Sept. 27, it will become law.

“This bill will ensure we prevent a crippling helium shortage,” House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Hastings said in a statement. “The bill before us today is truly a bipartisan, bicameral plan that I'm pleased to have worked on with both my Senate and House colleagues.”

Hooray for helium -- sorry we had to shutter all those national parks, however.

The act governs the Federal Helium Reserves, which contain roughly 11 billion cubic feet of helium, a stockpile the U.S. started back in the 1920s when blimps seemed like the future of transportation. Back then, the U.S. cornered the market; today the Reserves supply one-third of the world’s supply of helium. And the government has turned this reserve into a lucrative business: It's used in a wide variety of applications today, including semiconductor manufacturing, fiber optics, the aerospace industry and MRI machines, NPR reported.

A shutdown of the Federal Helium Program would result in lost revenue to the U.S. Treasury averaging $430,000 a day, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior, which manages the Reserves in Amarillo, Tex. (Don’t try reading about it on the DoI website, however, which is -- you guessed it -- temporarily closed for business.)

The 1996 law was set to expire on Oct. 1, the same day roughly 800,000 government employees were furloughed and national parks around the country closed. Had it expired, the government would no longer have been able to sell off those stockpiles.

But thanks to the tireless lobbying efforts of a helium coalition that included universities and private companies like Intel and IBM, the bill appears destined to become law, averting that “crippling shortage.”

“We urge Congress to act immediately and pass legislation to prevent a needless disruption to the U.S. economy that would put millions of jobs at risk,” reads a letter the group sent Sept. 10 to Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell.

Congress acted.

But will they sign a budget to prevent further “needless disruption”?

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